In 2020, vino lovers are accustomed to drinking wine from nonstandard packaging — screw-top bottles, aluminum cans and boxed wine among them. But in a restaurant or even a traditional tasting room, consumers may be getting their glass of wine from an even more unusual source: kegs. In these settings, kegs have some distinct advantages over traditional glass bottles.
For starters, kegs preserve wine longer because, unlike in a bottle that’s been opened, the wine isn’t exposed to oxygen. In fact, wine in a tapped keg will last up to six months, says Taylor Simpson, vice president of Good Harbor Vineyards in Lake Leelanau, whereas wine in an opened bottle is only good for a few days.
“There’s a lot less waste,” Simpson says. “If it’s a slow season, … (restaurateurs) may open a bottle and only sell a few glasses and then have to throw the other two out because they’ve been sitting around for five days. But with a keg, you don’t have to worry about that.”
Good Harbor kegs its Fishtown White, Harbor Red, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay for partnering restaurants. In establishments that sell a lot of wine, kegs streamline the “flow of service,” Simpson says.
“They go through so much product that it’s easier for flow of service to hook up a keg … so you don’t have to open individual bottles when you’re really busy,” she says.
Although any wine can be kegged, that storage option works particularly well for sparkling wine because of the preservation aspect.
“If a restaurant opens a bottle of bubbly and they only pour through half of it, it’s going to go flat in a couple days and they’re going to have to either cook with it or throw it out, and that can add up as an expense,” says Mike Laing, a partner at Mawby on the Leelanau Peninsula. “(Kegged sparkling wine is) always fresh, it’s always got bubbles in it, and it’s convenient on tap.”
Mawby, which specializes in sparkling wines, kegs three of its products — Green, Detroit and Sex — for sale in bars, restaurants and breweries. The winery also kegs its canned products for on-premise tasting because “it’s easier for our staff to pour them for folks to taste,” Laing says.
The kegging process itself, while more involved and labor-intensive than bottling, is reasonably straightforward.
“It’s really just like bottling or anything like that in the sense that the wine is going to get prepped and ready, it’s going to get filtered, and then we’re going to fill each keg individually as opposed to, say, running through a bottling line,” says Rick DeBlasio, general manager of Shady Lane Cellars on the Leelanau Peninsula.
Shady Lane started kegging a few of its products — a sparkling Riesling, a dry rosé and a cider — this year for wholesale and on-premise tasting.
“It’s just another way to get our product in the hands of consumers,” DeBlasio says.
All three wineries package their products in 20-liter plastic kegs.
“Within the plastic shell is an aluminum bag, and outside the bag is a layer of CO2,” says Simpson of the UniKeg brand Good Harbor uses. “The CO2 is there so that it pulls on the draft system. The CO2 presses on the bag to get the wine up the draft line.”
While kegs are an economical choice for restaurants willing and able to spare tap handles for them, they also hold one major advantage for environmentally conscious consumers. Kegs, which often can be either recycled or reused, depending on the material, produce less packaging waste than glass bottles and are thus eco-friendlier.
“If you’re about reducing packaging in our landfills, then drinking wine from a tap — you are part of that movement,” says Wally Maurer, owner and winemaker at Domaine Berrien Cellars in Berrien Springs, who kegs custom wine for breweries.
Plus, in terms of taste, there’s no real difference between kegged wine and bottled wine.
“It’s exactly the same,” Simpson says.